Portugal and a Douro River Cruise - 2009
Apart from the Algarve, Portugal as a holiday destination is largely a closed book to us. So when our friends Myra and Jim suggested a cruise down the Douro River through the port wine vineyards we were intrigued by a new experience. Thus in the Spring of 2009 we all met in Lisbon for a taste of the Portuguese capital before heading north to Porto to join our river cruiser for a week on the Douro River.
Lisbon proved to be a fascinating city, full of classical architecture and wide vistas of the harbour and beyond. On the morning of our first full day we toured the city's famous high spots, and in the afternoon we joined a coach tour west to the picturesque town of Sintra and the westernmost point of mainland Europe.
The Portuguese seem to have much in common with us, tending to a reserved manner and lack of flamboyance which is reflected in their national style. We also began to appreciate their fine cuisine.
After our short visit to the capital we travelled north by coach to the country's third city of Coimbra, enjoying a pleasant lunch and a tour of the renowned university and its famous ancient library. How little we seem to know about the smaller countries - this university was founded in 1290 and has been in continuous use ever since, now teaching 20,000 students and enjoying a formidable reputation for research. It looked magnificent in the sunshine and is no doubt a great place to study.
Later that day we arrived in the second city of Porto, where we boarded our cruise ship, the Douro Queen. On a sunny but windy spring afternoon we experienced this delightful city at its best: a colourful harbour bustling with local families intent on enjoying their weekend in the riverside cafés and restaurants, fringed by watercraft of all kinds and many of the wine houses that share its name.
Portugal is England's oldest ally. But I was surprised to learn that almost all the port wine houses were founded by the English, and many remain in the hands of English families to this day. We recognised many famous names during our stay, but our port wine tour and tasting here was at the Portuguese winery of Ferreira in Gaia, on the opposite bank of the Douro - delicious!
Before departing on our cruise we explored the old town of Porto, an interesting enough place but lacking the charm of its colourful waterfront. Once again we sampled the signature pastry of Portugal, the custard cream, with our morning coffee.
Douro River Cruise
We slipped our moorings in Porto on Sunday afternoon and began our stately journey east to the Douro Valley in the luxurious care of the Douro Queen and her crew, accompanied by 115 fellow travellers. Our cabin was spacious and well equipped, with an ensuite shower room and most of the facilities you might expect in a good hotel. A sun deck covered the entire top deck and included a pool, two Jacuzzis and a bar service, providing a superb view of the passing countryside in congenial surroundings.
The Douro River is one of Europe's largest, rising in central Spain and flowing west some 550 miles to its outlet at Porto. It has been the major means of transport in the region for centuries, and is still used today for transporting wine from the Douro Valley, the only legally permissible source of port wine, to the wineries of Porto. It flows through terrain very reminiscent of the Rhine Valley, but unlike the latter the Douro Valley has almost no industry and the river carries very little commercial traffic. The steep hillsides are heavily terraced to accommodate the vines, and such is the demand for the designated grapes that only the most rugged and inaccessible places are left uncultivated. Every port producer proudly displays their name and logo in their vineyards, and some of the grander houses have magnificent premises as a visual homage to their brand.
To ensure its navigability the Douro River has five massive locks, the deepest an incredible 114 feet. It was truly daunting to stand on the sun deck at the bottom of these mighty chasms and imagine the weight of water pressing on the top gate. They have little architectural merit, constructed from reinforced concrete as a triumph of brutal functionality over aesthetics. But without them we would have made little headway. They also provide a significant head of water for generating hydroelectric power, without which the region might have remained firmly in the agricultural age forever.
That evening we dined ashore at the Monastery of Alpendurada, now a hotel offering tastefully converted monks' cells as accommodation with magnificent views over the valley. The owner had little regard for the anachronism of his furnishings, but he served a good dinner.
The following day we visited the Mateus Palace, the unmistakeable logo of the eponymous rosé wine. Lifelong convictions are made to be shattered - the producers of the wine use the image under licence from the owners, and the famous wine is made hundreds of miles away! However, we were able to sample both the reds and the whites made on the premises - very nice.
We spent the next several days cruising through vineyards and visiting wineries and picturesque little towns whenever we stopped. As no cruising is permitted on the Douro during the hours of darkness we missed little of the countryside, and sometimes took a coach ride to a local beauty spot or enjoyed dinner ashore. Two coaches followed our progress, always on hand at each mooring to ferry us wherever we needed to go.
On reaching the Spanish border we left the ship for a day's excursion to the ancient Spanish town of Salamanca. It is considered to be one of the most spectacular Renaissance cities in Europe, with its yellow sandstone buildings earning it the name Golden City. I was disappointed by its surrender to tourism - places of interest rang to the strident tones of competing guides, and the streets were full of vendors selling tacky souvenirs. Our indifferent mass-catered lunch in a central hotel was further spoiled by the inevitable flamenco dancers and their attendant loud music. However, we did enjoy a visit to the Art Deco Museum and find an excellent afternoon tea and cakes in the Plaza Mayor.
This part of western Spain is largely featureless and uninspiring, save for the hills close to the Portuguese border, and most of us were only too happy to return to the spectacular terrain of the Douro Valley.
Two other excursions were memorable: one to the hilltop fortress village of Castelo Rodrigo, and another to the ancient Episcopal city of Lamego. The former is a fourteenth century fortified village built on commanding high ground, largely intact and still occupied, no doubt sustained mainly by tourism. Nevertheless it is both picturesque and charming, almost completely devoid of modern buildings and offering wonderful views of the surrounding countryside - a veritable photographer's paradise.
Lamego is an elegant town infused with Baroque style. Its most striking building is the sanctuary dedicated to Our Lady of Remedies, which stands gracefully above the town flanked by hundreds of zigzagging steps which have reputedly sullied many a pilgrim's knees during a virtuous ascent. We enjoyed them the easy way by taking the coach to the top and then walking down. I wonder why religious buildings seem to dominate Europe's architectural heritage, giving rise to the famous tourist acronym ABC - another bloody cathedral! The town has some delightful narrow, steep and winding streets, requiring pedestrians to step into doorways to allow vehicles to pass by. Jim and I walked up to the castle tower, while Elsa and Myra bought some tea towels, and we all enjoyed yet another coffee and custard cream. Each to his or her own!
On our penultimate evening we dined ashore at the Vintage House Hotel in Pinhão; yes, you guessed it, another shrine to port wine. We were served a superb meal, for me the best of the trip, and afterwards the Sommelier demonstrated another way of (literally) cracking open a bottle of vintage port. First heat a pair of circular tongs in a gas flame, then grip the wine bottle about half way down the cork, and finally poor cold water on the heated neck. Performed correctly the glass will fracture cleanly, leaving the lower half of the cork in the bottle to avoid unwelcome flakes of glass. Carefully remove the cork, decant the port and serve. Most of us willingly parted with five euros to sample an excellent eight year-old vintage.
After a stately cruise back to the sea, we turned in the mouth of the Douro to dock for the last time in Porto. Following a splendid last supper and a final opportunity to tipple the local nectar, the next day we flew back to Gatwick. We enjoyed the trip, the company, the dining and the wine - a delightful experience not too far (for us) from home.
Our holiday was organised by the US travel agent Uniworld.